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Bob Sipchen SCHOOL ME

Gang up on truancy? Better late than never

February 12, 2007|Bob Sipchen

Christopher Gardner, whose best-selling autobiography inspired the Will Smith movie "The Pursuit of Happyness," opened with an icebreaker: "This is the first time I've been surrounded by so many educational professionals, police officers, probation officers ... and district attorneys without my mom being in the room."

The line got a big laugh at this countywide symposium on truancy. Not that the 500-plus people with those job descriptions would have been in the same room back when the keynote speaker was in school.

This was, after all, something of a pioneering effort, and the first time the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, county Office of Education, city attorney's office, county Superior Court, county Probation Department and state attorney general's office had gathered with school districts and law enforcement agencies to discuss the subject.

As I pulled in among all the cop and exempted-plate cars at Cal State L.A., a saying that got stale about a dozen years ago popped into my head. I'll hold off on repeating it until the end because you'll just make that finger-in-mouth "gag me" gesture.

What's important to know is that this conglomeration of professionals seems to take cutting class seriously, spurred, in part, by another phrase that's fast approaching the status of cliche: "I've never met a gang member who wasn't a truant first."

Speaker after speaker blasted PowerPoint statistics onto screens to underscore truancy's place in a web of social ills.

One study by the National Center for School Engagement found that:

* Ninety-seven percent of expelled youths had been chronically truant in the past year.

* Twenty-five percent of expelled youths will be in a youth corrections facility within a year.

* Ninety percent of youths in detention for delinquent acts had been truants.

It only figures that -- as the statistics show -- young people who aren't in school have more time to smoke pot and have sex and break into people's homes and get sucked into gangs. And yes, duh, they're not going to do nearly as well in school as those who are actually there and so will be far more likely to drop out, stay poor and help drag down their neighborhoods.

The reasons why students ditch school are more complex: Students are afraid they'll be confronted by gangsters on the way to school or on campus. Their classes bore them. They have chronic health problems. They need to work or help care for siblings. Their mothers work several jobs or smoke crack. Bus routes aren't convenient. Their families are unraveling.

Given the tangle of causes and effects, individual and societal, it only makes sense that all sorts of people need to step in together and start hacking at the knot.

We've seen our public servants work themselves into well-meaning frenzies before, declaring multi-agency wars on gangs, or dropout rates, or the achievement gap. The photo-ops fade. The problems persist.

Call me naive, but this time I think I caught glimpses of realistic hope as I watched these battle-hardened pros swapping strategies and tactics.

At lunch I sat with Los Angeles Unified School District cops. They described sweeps in which they and other law enforcement agencies pick up hundreds of truants, haul them by bus to a central location and then herd them past counselors and probation officers who take stabs at setting them straight before releasing them to their parents.

A deputy district attorney talked about the series of escalating interventions her office now uses to pressure parents. An assistant principal at Paramount High explained how her school denies truants the right to attend proms or dances unless they attend Saturday classes; how community leaders push carts loaded with cookies or candied apples into classes to reward students with perfect attendance -- and offered numbers to show that this seemingly lame tactic cuts straight to even tough students' appetites for sweets and self-esteem. A woman from the state attorney general's office recounted working with students, police and L.A. County's MTA to make the areas around schools safe and make sure bus routes actually serve the schools' needs.

When parent educator Ralph Fry asked the congregation how many had an out-of-control kid of their own, a good quarter of the hands went up. When he asked how many knew someone with such a child, virtually every hand in the room rose.

And many heads bobbed in recognition as he described feeling like a helpless, sad, embarrassed, angry failure back when he was a cop teaching drug resistance programs while his own son abused drugs and ditched.

How refreshing, I thought, that conference organizers refused to let parents off the hook for their children's behavior.

Then there was Gardner, of "Happyness" fame, who insists that children themselves be held responsible for messing up their lives.

The film version of Gardner's story does an extraordinary job of showing the soul-depleting power of poverty. It shows, too, the courage it took for Gardner, now a big-time CEO, to overcome his own rotten childhood and then lift himself and his son to a better life.

"I raised a young man who understands that the first thing about being a man is being responsible," he told the group. "Because I broke the cycle I'm going to have influence on a generation of offspring I'll probably never meet."

That brings us back to what I took away as the symposium's unspoken Big Message. You know: "It takes a...."

I won't finish the phrase. But it does.

Could it be that Southern California is finally figuring that out?

To discuss this column or the question, "How can we keep kids in class?" visit latimes.com/schoolme. Bob Sipchen can be reached at bob.sipchen @latimes.com.

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